The 2013 NFL scouting combine has begun, and with it begins the week-long process in which talent evaluators from 32 NFL teams will look for any reason they can find to change their initial evaluation of a player.
The Detroit Lions will be one of those teams, picking through the field of college hopefuls to find standouts they can use.
This year's combine will be of particular interest, considering how few "can't miss" prospects there are in this draft. Teams will use every bit of data they have to make the most of their picks, especially with what is expected to be a lower-than-usual overall talent level.
There are a number of players who would appear to fit well with the Lions, but none come without a fair number of question marks. The combine will be the Lions' last best chance to answer their questions on these players before opting to draft them (or not).
Some of these players are ones the Lions might be considering in the first round, and some of them the Lions may be deciding whether to draft at all. In either case, the events of the next few days should help make those decisions a lot easier, especially on these players.
It's not a direct comparison, but if there is any running back in the draft that appears more poised to take over for Jahvid Best, it may be Andre Ellington of Clemson.
Ellington isn't a first-round talent like Best was, mostly because he doesn't have the same top-end speed and explosive acceleration. That's fine, since the Lions would likely balk at taking another running back that high in the draft.
But Ellington does have far more raw speed than anyone currently on the Lions' roster, he is proficient in the passing game (both catching and blocking), and he could provide a perfect complement to grinders Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best.
The Lions will be interested to see just how much straight-line speed Ellington has, so his 40 time (particularly his 10- and 20-yard splits, which will display his acceleration) will likely be key to the Lions, and any other team watching him.
That may be the difference between whether teams see him as a situational third-down back, or a game-changing home-run hitter.
Depending on who you ask, Bjoern Werner could be gone by the time the Lions make their first pick, or he could be not worth taking in the top 15.
Defensive ends are hard to gauge at the combine, because so much of what they do is contextual. It's almost impossible to gauge their play-recognition skills, hand use, or ability to adapt to a savvy blocking scheme.
That said, Werner does have intangibles and intelligence going for him. It could be that what he needs to prove most are his physical skills.
Werner showed good quickness and strength at Florida State, and much of his football knowledge is still developing (though it's exceptional for his age and experience level), so if he performs well in the speed and agility drills, he should maintain a high draft position on the Lions' big board.
Travis Frederick is a gigantic man. Standing at about 6' 4" and over 335 pounds, Frederick is a former linemate of Falcons G/C Peter Konz, and one many believe could be an even better NFL player with his size and clean injury history.
For the Lions, he fills potentially two needs. With Stephen Peterman off the roster, the Lions have a vacant position at starting right guard, and with Dominic Raiola potentially in the last year of his NFL career, they have an impending need for a starting center.
At Wisconsin, Frederick played exactly those positions as a dominant run-blocker, and in that order, before opting to leave Wisconsin after his junior year. Scouting reports on Frederick suggest that he could start instantly for most NFL teams at any interior line position.
However, while Frederick's size makes him a dominant road-grader, it also makes him susceptible to quick, explosive defensive tackles. He will need to show good form and athleticism at the combine to show his ability to handle situations other than just pushing forward.
There are rumblings that the Lions could draft Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of this year's draft.
It would be uncharacteristic of them, as need-based reaches are the opposite of what the Lions have become known for in the draft.
But right now, Vaccaro is a fringe top-10 pick. He would have to absolutely explode at the combine, running and jumping straight out of the building, to move into the top 5.
That being said, the Lions should absolutely be paying attention to that possibility. It's not often that a safety creeps into the top 5, but if Vaccaro shows that he's worth it, he fills perhaps the Lions' biggest long-term need.
Of course, there isn't any one area that Vaccaro would need to focus on to raise his stock that drastically. He needs to excel and wow in every area, including interviews.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a guy whose stock has been slowly rising over the last few weeks, though that might just be stock inflation due to a lack of impact WRs in this class.
The idea that he would move all the way up to the fifth slot (or that the Lions would take a receiver in the first round and invite that fan backlash) might be silly. But then again,
so, imagine a 6'3" Percy Harvin running around the field, that's Cordarrelle Patterson.
— Alessandro Miglio (@AlexMiglio) February 19, 2013
For a team that has desperately been trying to find a downfield complement for Calvin Johnson, Patterson could actually make sense.
But there's a much better reason for the Lions to pay attention to Patterson's potential rise at the combine this year than what he would do for their offense.
A couple years ago, a man by the name of Julio Jones excelled in every area at the combine, showing rare physical ability. He went from a middle or late first-round pick to a top 10 lock.
As a result, the Atlanta Falcons, a team in "win now" mode, sold off the better part of two drafts (including first-round picks in consecutive drafts) to trade with the Cleveland Browns and move up 21 spots to take Jones.
It may not make sense for the Lions to take Patterson themselves, but it makes an awful lot of sense for them to trade back and stockpile picks. If Patterson has a Jones-like combine, he could be the catalyst for the Lions to engineer a Jones-like trade.
Nobody dominated—or helped their draft stock more—at the Senior Bowl than BYU's Ezekiel Ansah.
Ansah is one of those players who wasn't truly elite as a college player (and only started playing football in 2010), but is physically absolutely perfect for his position. He showed tremendous progression and growth at the Senior Bowl, where he was coached by Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and his staff.
Ansah's biggest drawback is his lack of instincts and awareness, being extremely new to football, but Schwartz himself refuted some of those claims during the Senior Bowl.
"Everybody keeps saying that he's raw, but I keep seeing things like instincts and knocking down passes that doesn't look raw to me," Schwartz said (via Mlive.com). "It looks like he has a really good feel for the game."
Ansah is an incredible athlete, possessing a rare combination of size, speed and strength. As such, he should be absolutely dominant at the combine. If that turns out to be true, the Lions would definitely give him a look at fifth overall, provided he makes it even that far.
The Lions have precious few answers at offensive tackle, with far too many questions.
Riley Reiff appears to be an answer. The remaining length of the career of Jeff Backus remains a question. Gosder Cherilus' return is a question.
Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard? They're answers with question marks. They could be starters, and they could be off the roster by September.
Eric Fisher may well be the answer the Lions are looking for, as the more exposure his gets, the higher his stock seems to rise.
One of the biggest things for Fisher at the combine will actually be his weigh-in and measurement. He is listed at either 6' 7" or 6' 8", and somewhere around 305 pounds, but for someone that tall, arm length and hand size will also be major factors.
Fisher's strength is also a concern, especially for a man of his size, so his bench press numbers may be under heavy scrutiny (though they may be taken with a grain of salt on account of what should be a large wingspan).
David Amerson's stock has slipped after following up a historical sophomore season with a junior year that saw him chasing too many receivers into the end zone.
The days of Amerson being a first-round projection are over, but he could still have first-round talent. Much of the reason Amerson regressed as a junior is because teams learned to feast on his over-aggressiveness.
Amerson can learn to stay home a little more often, and he can learn a new position if his skill set warrants a shift to safety. What he can't learn is speed and agility.
Because Amerson is a big, physical cornerback who likes to hit and jump routes to force turnovers, there is a possibility he could shift to safety. His 40 time will have a lot to do with how much people talk about that going forward.
Some evaluators think Amerson doesn't have the elite speed or fluidity he needs to cover for his aggressiveness at the NFL level. If that's the case, a shift to safety would allow him to keep using his ball-hawking skills but cover up the potential problems stemming from his stiff hips and average speed.
Of course, Amerson has the ability to quell those concerns with a solid combine performance. A good 40 time will likely keep him in the "cornerback" column, and a good showing in positional drills (particularly one-on-one downfield coverage drills) could vault his stock as far as the high second round.
If the Detroit Lions really, truly believe in drafting the best player available, regardless of position, they should have lots of eyeballs on Chance Warmack.
It is unheard of for a guard to go in the top five picks in the draft, but Chance Warmack is a prospect with rare talent that ranks near or at the top of every draft big board.
There is very little Warmack can do to raise his stock any higher, it's just his position that keeps it down. With his build, Warmack can really only ever play guard. He could theoretically make a shift to center, but he's never played there, and there is little reason to move him.
The problem with that is that guard tends to be a throwaway position. Even the best guards—which Warmack threatens to be—have minimal impact on the average NFL game. The difference between an elite guard and an average one is much smaller than it is at other positions.
That being said, the Lions would be silly to not give Warmack his due diligence. He's better at his position than maybe anyone else in this draft class. The only problem is at his position, it won't matter as much. But if the Lions have an opportunity to move back a bit in the draft, Warmack could go from being a reach to being a prime target.
Well, I don't know about the Lions taking a linebacker quite this high, but I do know that Mike Mayock is very good at draft things, and he's calling for this.
Whether the Lions consider this or not likely has a lot to do with whether they get (or want) DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant back under contract. If they don't, they'll be looking for a starting OLB, and Jones will fit the bill.
This pick does make sense for a number of reasons. Impact OLBs in a 4-3 scheme are exceptionally rare, and Jones has the instincts and explosive athleticism to do it. He played in a 4-3 scheme at Georgia, and it's hard to say whether he's primed for a positional change at the next level.
The drawback to this is the same as it is with Chance Warmack. In a 4-3 defense, OLBs are among the least impactful players on the field, as their role deals primarily with stopping the run.
Of course, what makes Jones valuable is that he can rush the passer. So this raises some questions about how the Lions would use him. Primary blitzing linebacker? DE/OLB hybrid who moves around the field?
The Lions could figure out how to use Jones if they decide they like him. The question is whether they decide he's talented enough to work him into the scheme. That will require him to show his impressive physical skills, but also to undergo a battery of medical tests.
Jones has been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a potentially serious condition that ended Michael Irvin's career in 2000. Jones has been given medical clearance, but team doctors are likely to want to run their own analyses of him just in case.
This is especially true of the Lions, who certainly don't want another instance of a first-round pick busting for medical reasons.